When I was 15, I studied theater at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City. It wasn’t my first experience in a theater school, but it was my first in the Big City where the air was thick with the vibrations of Broadway and Off Broadway theaters. The menu of classes was rich and ranged from movement and mime to voice and my first exposure to the world of Viola Spolin’s Theater Games and theatrical improvisation. My voice class always began with a vocal warm up of tongue twisters.
“Your voice is one of the most important instruments in your personal orchestra,” the teacher would remind us. “Not everyone is Marcel Marceau and if the audience cannot understand you, then they will walk out and the playwright deserves better!”
So there we were, a room full of 15 year old Eliza Doolittles, our mouths full of marbles or mini marshmallows, cheeks bulging and earnestly repeating meaningless phrases over and over. The giggling was infectious as marshmallows and marbles spewed from our mouths like bb’s as we repeated, “Sushi chef sushi chef sushi chef,” or, “She makes a proper cuppa coffee in a copper coffee pot.” But my favorite was, “Unique New York, Unique New York, Unique New York” because as a native New Yorker from Queens and later on LonGIsland I was in love with the grandeur of New York City. And like most New Yorkers, I was indoctrinated into the cult-like belief that New York is indeed the center of the universe.
Case in point; I have lived in the Bay Area for over 30 years and my family still thinks I am just going through a phase and continues to ask, “When are you coming home?” In some ways I still carry that “programming” with me. Each time I go to New York it’s as if my body recalibrates and on a cellular level, I am home. The smell of the Van Wyck Expressway, the pace of the pedestrians on the city streets, the nonchalant way I ride the subway with The New York Times folded effortlessly in thirds…
Unique New York, Unique New York, Unique New York.
I have been fortunate in my lifetime to travel fairly extensively, and I have learned that there are many amazing places in the world that shine with their own brand of uniqueness. Until recently, one of the cities I never had a chance to visit was Chicago. It took me over a half century but I finally made it. I was visiting my son for his 20th birthday. Zak is there for a two month internship, a component of his college program, at a fabulous music venue called The Society for the Preservation of Arts and Culture of Evanston, aka, S.P.A.C.E. Not only was it the first time I had ever been to Chicago, but it was the first time in my “mommy” role that I had ever been someplace that my son knew more than I did. From the moment I arrived he took on the role of tour guide with great relish (which we will get to later) and showed me around his “new hood.”
I don’t know whether it was my aforementioned “New York centricity” or just my previous paucity of exposure to anything about Chicago, but my expectations were surpassed on every level. What a vibrant city! The lake, the view from Sears, (now Willis) Tower, the music scene (and not just the place Zak is working at) were all delightful. We visited the Field Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry, which were superior, in my opinion, to many of the renowned museums I’ve been to in D.C., Paris, London, and yes…even New York!
Then there was the food. Wow, I have never seen a town that took its pizza so seriously. Gino’s has a deep dish sausage pizza and because they put a sausage patty, which is the exact circumference of the pizza, on top of the dough and then cover it with sauce and cheese, you are guaranteed to get a bite of sausage in EVERY mouthful.
And don’t get me started on the hot dogs. (I told you we would get back to the relish.) Having grown up in the land of Sabrett’s and Nathan’s carts on the corners of NYC I never expected to be impressed by a hot dog in Chicago! But they have elevated the dog experience to a whole….nudder….level!
Another highlight was the famous, Second City Comedy Club. It was like visiting Mecca. Meaningful for me because founded in 1959, the Second City is where Violin Spolin originated the theater games I have used in my careers as an actress and expressive arts therapist; and super cool for my son because this is where many of his favorite comedians (Dan Akroyd, John Belushi, Eugene Levy, Katherine O’Hara and Martin Short) got their start.
But something else struck me as we traipsed around the city. Most of the people we saw in the museums, restaurants, and shops were bigger and body shapes and sizes more diverse than those in N.Y.C. More people looked like me than didn’t. It reminded me of when I was in Ireland surrounded by redheads and I felt an unfamiliar but delicious sense of belonging and acceptance. Funny thing about being unique; it can be a good thing, but if you are unique in a way that society doesn’t appreciate or accept, you can become a target for bullying and teasing and left feeling like an outcast or outsider. So as the days passed in Chicago, I found that a part of me really relaxed in a milieu that I experienced as less competitive and more accepting of my size and shape. Of course I don’t know what the internal processes or self esteems of the individuals may have been, but the visible evidence of fat, fashionable, casually comfortable Chic-cagoans really added to my positive experience of The(ir) City.
The challenge, of course, is to carry that sense of comfort and self appreciation with you when you leave a place where you feel you belong and continue to generate self-acceptance from the inside. It takes practice and determination but the benefits of cultivating love, respect, and appreciation for our individual qualities and uniqueness without relying on other people’s opinions and attitudes are enormous!
With Valentine’s Day close at hand, feeling lovable is on the radar for many of us who frequently feel unloved because of our body shape, size, or body image. But we don’t have to live in Cheek-cago to remember that it is up to us to define what is lovable about ourselves and NOT measure our self-worth by how many valentines we receive or what other people think about our bodies.
The most important, intimate valentine any of us can receive is the one we give ourselves.